The 1953 Armistice Agreement brought a sustainable halt to the Korean War, but has never ended it. Nor did it transform into a peace regime. During the last sixty four years the North and South Koreans have lived in conditions of neither war nor peace, which has certain advantages and downsides for both regimes separated by the Demilitarised Zone.
For the communist government in the North, the continuing war provides legitimacy and consolidates the masses around the Leader, who does not need to justify his power or explain the North’s economic woes. For the export-oriented economy and steadily democratising society of South Korea, the continuing war against communism provides broad international sympathy, which is translated into their staunch security alliance and economic cooperation with the US. Any change (intentional or inadvertent) in the current balance of power or threat on the peninsula would lead to immediate re-adjustment or re-balancing of the equilibrium.
Military provocations by the North, no matter how grave or audacious (e.g. the 1968 guerrilla attack on the Blue House in Seoul, the 1968 USS Pueblo incident, the 1976 Axe Murder Incident, 2002 naval clashes in the West Sea and the 2010 ROK corvette Cheonan sinking or Yeonpyeong Island shelling) have never led to the resumption of war. Similarly, peace and reconciliation-oriented initiatives (e.g. the 1972 Joint North-South Korean Communiqué, the 1991 Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or the 2000 North–South Joint Declaration) inevitably have ended with a bitter disappointment. It seems that both Koreas are destined to live in the perpetual fear of war without really experiencing it.
Regional neighbours find this situation annoying but acceptable because the reunification of Korea could be potentially dangerous for some and advantageous for others. The Cold War mentality persists in Northeast Asia and dictates to its leaders to exercise caution in any decisions related to the Korean peninsula, which is known to be the regional balancer. After WWII, Korea was divided by the great powers for a good reason – to separate the communist bloc from the capitalist democracies. Seventy years later, Korea still serves as a buffer zone which separates the economic interests of China and Russia-dominated Northeast Asia from the US-dominated Pacific Rim.
Should any of the actors disturb the equilibrium in Korea, the stabilising forces of reasoning and good judgement would inevitably return the situation to the original steady balance of threat. Neither the UN intervention in Korea nor the Chinese counterattack in 1950 could help Koreans to reunify their country. Similarly, North Korea’s progress in building their nuclear and rocket deterrent (independently from what is promised by the alliance with China) will be counterbalanced by the return of US-owned nuclear weapons to South Korea or by the resumption of Seoul’s indigenous nuclear program, which was abandoned in the 1970s. When the balance of threat is restored, a temporary period of improved inter-Korean and DPRK-US relations will follow. Peaceful or hostile co-existence in Korea serves the interests of the ruling elites in both Koreas and benefits their foreign partners too.
Imagining the catastrophic consequences of a new war in Korea is pointless because everyone (in Pyongyang and Seoul, Washington and Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo) understands the risks associated with imminent nuclear retaliation. After the 2006 nuclear test North Korea became a fully-fledged nuclear power and what was previously possible (or at least hypothetically imaginable) with regards to military action against Pyongyang is simply out of the question today. Whether Washington admits the reality or continues to produce the self-deceiving blandishments of a surgical strike against North Korea, a new hot war in Korea is not feasible simply because it serves no-one’s interests.
Firstly, it would be suicidal for the aggressor and equally catastrophic for the victim of aggression. Second, when the nuclear dust settles the presumed victor would not know what to do with the trophy. The Kim dynasty would not survive another war for unification. A democratically elected government in Seoul would not know how to rule the third of its (newly acquired) population which is not familiar with the concept of self-organisation. The cost of rebuilding damaged physical infrastructure would be dwarfed by the long-term expenditure required to maintain social order in the conquered territories and to re-educate the captured population. Survivors would prefer to seek refuge in a third country out of fear of revenge and reprisals. The exodus resulting from Korean reunification is not something that regional neighbours would be ready to welcome or absorb. It would take years and trillions of dollars before Korea could recover after the shock of violent unification.
Even a peaceful unification is likely to pose a threat to Korea’s neighbours. The windfall of natural resources and an economical labour force, if combined with advanced technologies and nationalism-driven investments, would help Korea outperform the industrial powerhouse of Japan and enter into open competition with China. A narrow but strategically located Russo-Korean border corridor would link the European markets and Siberian oil with Korean industrial producers. An underwater tunnel, once completed between Korean and Japan, would undermine the Sino-American duopoly and link the peninsula with the islands.
If the North and South were unified, the presence of US troops would be questioned, not only in Korea but in Japan as well. US security alliance structures across the Pacific would crumble, followed by economic and technological withdrawal from the region. Even the new Cold War against China and Russia would not help Washington prevent the major rollback of American influence in Asia and the Pacific. Russia and China, as well, upon losing their common adversary, would need to resume competition and power struggle for regional hegemony. Thus, the unification of Korea would open a new era of regional tensions, which nobody is really prepared to endure.
Korea today, however divided and problematic, is a capstone of regional peace and stability which must not be touched by political adventurists. The balance of Northeast Asian regional security architecture has been hinging on the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which has proved to be solid and robust enough to survive many international conflicts. Even the acquisition of nuclear armaments by North Korea is not going to change the inter-Korean relations or Koreans’ relations with neighbours. However, if North Korea is deliberately targeted or attacked and destroyed, as has been threatened from the UN podium, that would trigger processes far beyond of our imagination and control and inevitably lead to tectonic shifts in the politics, security and economy of the region, which collectively produces and consumes approximately 19% of the global Gross Domestic Product. Surely, nobody will play with fire when so much is at stake.
Dr Leonid Petrov is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. His research interests are socio-economic history and international relations in Northeast Asia; Inter-Korean (DPRK and ROK) conflicts and cooperation; disputed territories, migration and border control in China, Japan, Korea, and Russia; and Communist and post-communist studies (USSR, Russia, Commonwealth of Independent States). Leonid holds a MA in Asian and African Studies from the Department of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg State University and a PhD in History examining Socio-economic School and the Formation of North Korean Official Historiography from ANU. He runs a blog featuring his insights on North and South Korea at http://www.leonidpetrov.com/